A tribute to Ahmed Essop, teacher, writer and shining light of South Africa

Representation matters, and the oeuvre of Ahmed Essop attests to this. In his short fiction and novels, Essop insisted on figuring the textured lives of people relegated to the margins of twentieth century South Africa. The violations of colonial conquest and the crime against humanity which was apartheid were the backdrop against which his stories explored questions of ethics, belonging, alienation, and the indomitable human spirit placed imperilled by dire circumstances.

Many South Africans will know Essop’s The Hajji (1978), a story widely anthologised. The collection from which the story comes and to which it lends its name, signalled a significant talent who was concerned with figuring (and figuring out) life in Fordsburg, just west of Johannesburg’s city centre where the descendants of Indian migrants lived.

By the late twentieth century, in a city younger than a century, the lives of those who lived there, as sketched by Essop, was indeed more complex than the colonial and later apartheid label ‘Indian’ to which authorities would seem to want to reduce people. The Hajji takes that dehumanisation as the catalyst for the exploration of the ethical questions confronting the title character, a man of faith who has his belief tested when his prodigal brother returns from having ‘played in the light’, passing for white in Hillbrow, and on his deathbed, wishes for a return to Fordsburg, and also a return to Islam.

For Essop, community is figured as source of succour, but also of censure. The hajji finds himself penned in by his imagination of the community’s judgement of his rejection of his brother. Additionally, there are spiritual questions of forgiveness and embrace which he has to confront, and when these are enacted for him by others in his community, the very thing that he thought he was protecting, excluded him, partly because he excluded himself. This tension at the heart of communal belonging, and the political questions which attend such tension in apartheid South Africa, recur in other works by Essop.

Bessie Head once described South Africa as a country of signs and divisions, and suggested that the ubiquity of these categories lead to dehumanisation, such that you ended up ‘with no people at all’. It is this alienation from the fully human condition which Essop explores in The Visitation (1980)and The Emperor (1984). These two novels are companion pieces, and the epigraph to the second book, quoting Emperor Ashoka, gives insight into Essop’s concern with ethics and humanity in his fiction: ‘The welfare of the whole world is man’s principal duty’.

Placing his characters in the wider world of the Indian diaspora, Essop not only invoked the history of that subcontinent, from Ashoka to Gandhi, but also examined the ways in which those traditions, re-placed in South Africa, could provide the source for a certain kind of satirical undermining of apartheid’s white supremacist logic. The tragicomic aspect of apartheid life is explored by Yogi Krishnasiva, who ‘employed the principles and practices of Yoga to seduce’. The satire of late twentieth century white supremacy hinges on the fact that the objects of his desire were white South African women, presumably easy targets for their Orientalist racist fantasies of ancient wisdom and spirituality. By exploiting and exploring stereotypes of Oriental inscrutability, Essop shows people not just resisting the authoritarian regime’s definitions of them, but also returns to the folly which is racism.

It is important to value work like that of Ahmed Essop. His representation of life in Indian communities in late apartheid South Africa is infused with the history form which many have been displaced, and re-places their lives inside the new histories they made in the country in which they and their descendants lived, but as second-class human beings in apartheid’s toxic hierarchies. As such, Essop did not shy away from the prejudices internal to Fordsburg, mirroring and also parodying the colonial and apartheid hierarchies.

The nuance with which he treated the ways in which hair texture, skin tone, and eye colour, the phenotypical attributes by which ‘race’ was delineated and reproduced, often escapes casual readers. Again, the use of satire in the stories means that careful reading is required to see the complexity of Essop’s artistry.

The Third Prophecy (2004) takes the satirical elements of the earlier fiction and projects it fully onto an imagined post-apartheid South Africa. It centres on a fictional political party and the ambitions of one cabinet minister, Dr Salman Khan, inspired as he is by Mr Roma, a prophet-like figure who predicts a Muslim will become president of the Republic of South Africa. Subtle in its unsettling unfolding, the novel remains a wonderfully droll lens through which to think about post-millennial post-apartheid politics.

Ahmed Essop was born in India in 1931, but came to South Africa as a child. Many revered him as a beloved teacher of English before he clashed with the apartheid authorities and was barred from teaching. He took a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1956, and later an Honours degree in English Literature. His contribution to South African writing is not just that he shone a light into a community marginal to the culture of letters of the apartheid era. We who read him then and read him still find the joy of his wit, his irony, his humour, as he explored difficult questions of ethics and humanity in his stories, invaluable. The death of an old man is not a tragedy, as Robert Altman indicated as he faced terminal cancer in his eighties, but we must contemplate the loss of Ahmed Essop, and rekindle the light he shone in dark times by reading his prose.

Ahmed Essop (1931-2019) 

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Angelo Fick
Angelo Fick

Angelo Fick is the Director of Research at ASRI. He continues to do part-teaching at universities on questions of culture, and still publishes columns at eNCA.com.

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